Olive oil and the Mediterranean diet are two words you may hear interchangeably.
That’s because, in the Mediterranean diet, individuals use olive oil as their primary source of fat. In some cases, they consume around 4 tbsp of olive oil a day! That’s about 1/4 cup of olive oil every day.
Now you may be wondering, is that too much olive oil? Well, read on to learn what the Mediterranean diet actually is and how much olive oil is optimal for health.
This article was written by Amber Hames, Bio-Medical Science Major at the University of Guelph. Edited and reviewed by Veronica Rouse, MAN, RD, CDE.
Table of Contents
What Is The Mediterranean Diet?
The Mediterranean diet has extensive research shows eating this way promises longevity, better heart health, prevention of chronic diseases, and weight loss (1).
The Mediterranean diet involves following a similar eating pattern to those living in the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea (hence the name!), such as Italy, Greece, and France.
The diet consists of plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts, and olive oil. There is moderate inclusion of fish, dairy, eggs, and alcohol, particularly red wine consumed with dinners. While meat, especially red meat, and other sweets are consumed very rarely (1).
Following the Mediterranean diet is not just about eating certain foods. It’s about how you eat these foods. In fact HOW we enjoy our meals can be just as important as the TYPES of food we eat.
For example, if you find yourself always rushing through your meals or frequently eating in front of the TV, take this as your sign to change it up.
In the Mediterranean there is an emphasis on taking the time, often with friends and family, to actually cook the meal, and enjoy meal in a pleasant environment. This is followed by taking a rest to allow for digestion. Staying mentally, socially, and physically active are all part of this healthy lifestyle (1).
Benefits Of The Mediterranean Diet
Research into the Mediterranean diet first started in the 1950s when an American researcher, Ancel Keys, was looking into the prevalence of heart disease in different countries. When he found the Mediterranean countries had significantly lower heart disease rates than the other countries he was researching, he looked more into their diet for a possible explanation.
Their large intake of healthier fats paired with the emphasis on plant-based foods proved to be great at protecting against type 2 diabetes, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and some cancers (2).
A lot of popular diets aren’t sustainable long-term as they are often too restrictive and unattainable for the majority of the public. However, the Mediterranean diet incorporates a vast array of different foods and allows for some flexibility. As a result, this way of eating can be maintained for your entire life, ensuing in the most benefit.
Types Of Fats
Dietary fats are a crucial part of our diet, but not all fat is created equally.
The chemical structure of the fatty acid chain determines what kind of fat it will be.
- Saturated fats do not contain any double bonds between carbon molecules in the fatty acid chain. As a result, they are solid at room temperature (think butter and the marbling of meat).
- Monounsaturated fats have one double-bond present. This results in two fewer hydrogen atoms than saturated fat and thus this structure keeps monounsaturated fats liquid at room temperature (think olive oil).
- Polyunsaturated fats have 2+ double-bonds present and are also liquid at room temperature.
Complicated I know. All you need to know is there are different fats, and we should be eating more of one fat than another fat for optimal health.
Saturated and trans fats produce an inflammatory effect and can contribute to cardiovascular disease (2).
Therefore, focusing on incorporating more anti-inflammatory unsaturated fats (like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) is important in preventing various diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other inflammatory conditions such as arthritis or asthma (3, 4).
As mentioned, incorporating monounsaturated fat is great for improving cardiovascular health by lowering LDL (also known as your bad) cholesterol (4).
Monounsaturated fats have also been shown to increase insulin sensitivity, something important for individuals living with type 2 diabetes (4).
And guess what, the Mediterranean diet is packed with this healthy fat which may be why this way of eating is so healthy.
Food Sources of Monounsaturated Fats
Monounsaturated fat sources come primarily from plant sources such as:
- Olive oil
- Nut butters like peanut butter
- Avocado oil and avocado
- Various nuts and seeds
While polyunsaturated fats are great to include in our diet, there are different types that produce different effects in our bodies. Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats are both examples of polyunsaturated fats. Both are crucial for our health when they are eaten in the right ratio.
Omega 3’s produces anti-inflammatory effects while too much of another polyunsaturated fat, Omega 6, creates inflammation. Unfortunately, the typical North American diet consumes way too much Omega 6 and not enough Omega 3, which leads to inflammation (5).
A lot of the fat we consume comes from animal sources which are made up of primarily Omega 6 fat (5). This is in contrast to the Mediterranean diet which limits animal fat. Instead, it favors fat from plant and fish sources, which mostly consist of Omega 3 fats.
Omega 3 fats have been shown to be beneficial for decreasing our heart disease risk by improving blood pressure and reducing circulating triglycerides (a type of fat in our blood) (5).
Omega-3 fats can also be beneficial for arthritis patients. It can lower the inflammation that often leads to pain and stiffness in joints (5).
Food Sources Of Polyunsaturated Fats
Omega 3 Fatty Acids primarily come from plant and fish sources such as:
- Fatty fish like salmon, trout, mackerel, and sardines
- Various seeds
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Canola oil
Olive Oil And Mediterranean Diet
So now that we understand the types of fat, let’s look at olive oil in more detail.
Not only does olive oil add delicious flavor to your meals, but it also is made up of 73% of healthy monounsaturated fat (1). That’s the healthy fat.
Olive oil is also packed with polyphenols, which are micronutrients that are protective against free radicals. Free radicals are (compounds that can cause damage to our cells.
It is recommended that olive oil is incorporated into our diet every day to help our body protect against free radicals (1). This is crucial as cell damage can lead to chronic diseases, such as cancer and heart disease.
In fact, olive oil is listed as one of 39 foods that unclog arteries.
There are various types of olive oil that can be purchased, but extra virgin olive oil is the most unprocessed. Choosing an unprocessed oil insures all of its antioxidants and polyphenols remain intact and aren’t filtered out (1).
Check out this article if you are interested in learning about what to look for when purchasing olive oil.
How Much Olive Oil Per Day In The Mediterranean Diet?
While the Mediterranean diet doesn’t specify how much extra virgin olive oil to consume eat a day, Mediterranean countries use olive oil at every meal.
The majority of their meals contain whole plant-based foods. Therefore using olive oil when cooking, adds flavor to their foods.
Additionally, incorporating olive oil into every meal will increase satiety or fullness. while also reaping the benefits of the antioxidants called polyphenols.
The Research Around Quanity
There is a range of studies that are looking into the amount of olive oil to improve various health conditions. However, it is important to note that the exact amount each person needs varies based on their sex, body size, activity level, and other fat sources consumed.
Regardless of the exact amount of olive oil, there have been beneficial results seen with replacing saturated fats with olive oil. In fact, this is a predominant message in the heart-healthy eating guidelines; reduce your saturated fats by replacing them with unsaturated fats to eat a moderately high-fat diet (4).
In the past, the message was to reduce saturated fats, period. However, we learned that this low-fat way of eating did not provide health benefits. Now the messaging has changed to consume a higher fat eating pattern, but it is encouraged to eat less saturated fat and more unsaturated fats when doing so (4).
That being said, the research isn’t as clear as how much olive oil should be consumed.
Research studies include varying ranges of olive oil intake.
For example, a study showed that 4 tablespoons of olive oil a day resulted in a reduced risk of cardiac events like heart attack and stroke (4). While another study showed that a mere 1 tablespoon of olive oil was preventative for developing type 2 diabetes (6).
Incorporating any amount of olive oil into your daily routine is sure to be protective against various health conditions. This is especially true if olive oil is replacing other potentially harmful fat sources such as saturated fats like animal meats, high-fat dairy, and lard.
Heart Health And Olive Oil
Heart disease has numerous risk factors, many of which olive oil can help reduce!
Olive oil is protective against heart disease by reducing inflammation of the blood vessels and reducing our blood pressure (1). This inflammation and high blood pressure make our heart work harder and can result in chronic heart disease.
Olive oil also contains an abundance of antioxidants that can help reduce plaque build-up in the blood vessels by reducing the concentration of fats in the blood (1). This ensures our blood can flow more easily and reach the body parts it needs to!
The PREDMIED study was a large study of over 7000 individuals which provided strong evidence that a Mediterranean dietary pattern is a suitable eating pattern for cardiovascular prevention. I showed improvement in blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, lipid profiles, lipoprotein particles, inflammation, oxidative stress, and carotid atherosclerosis (8).
Additionally, the LYON study was another randomized control trial, that showed eating the Mediterranean way reduced the chance of a secondary cardiac event (9). Thus, not only does it prevent cardiovascular disease, but it can prevent another cardiac event if one has already occurred.
Constipation And Olive Oil
The Mediterranean diet is filled with fruits, vegetables, and grains that are packed with fiber, ensuring you have regular bowel.
Not only will including more fiber-rich food help prevent constipation, but olive oil itself has been shown to treat constipation (7). The olive oil allowed for softer stools, similar to other stool softeners that are used to treat constipation.
Diabetes And Olive Oil
As mentioned before, the primary fat in olive oil is monounsaturated fat. This type of fat has been shown to increase insulin sensitivity and improve fasting blood sugar levels, both of which are vital for diabetes control (4,10).
Weight Loss And Olive Oil
Weight loss is complicated. It involves more than eating fewer calories than you burn. A lot of research studies have shown that when individuals follow a Mediterranean diet, they lose weight (1, 10).
This could be because the majority of the diet is plant foods, which are low in calories, and high in fiber. Thus, creating a very filling satiating way of eating.
Can You Have Too Much Olive Oil On The Mediterranean Diet?
There isn’t a specific amount of olive oil that is deemed as too much as everyone requires different amounts based on their genetics and lifestyle.
However, there is a general recommendation of 20-35% of your total daily calories to come from fat sources (11). For someone consuming a 2000-calorie diet, that is around 400-700 calories. 1/4 cup of olive oil has around 480 calories (12). As long as your fat intake is less than that, it is safe.
Will Eating More Olive Oil Make Me Fat?
As discussed above, the Mediterranean diet doesn’t directly dictate the number of calories that needs to be eaten. Rather it encourages more nutrient-dense plant foods (like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds) to be added to your diet.
Eating this way reveals a low saturated fat intake, and allows room for unsaturated fats like olive oil to be consumed.
Additionally, large randomized control studies have shown that eating a diet rich in olive oil (1/4 cup of olive oil a day) can result in weight loss, and this may because of its satiating effects (8).
In my opinion, adding olive oil can flavor plant foods. This enhanced flavor can increase the likelihood that one will eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Ultimately, increasing compliance with the Mediterranean diet.
How To Consume Extra Virgin Olive Oil?
Olive oil is extremely versatile and can be added to almost every meal. Even better, it can be used as a replacement for some more unhealthy fats, such as saturated or animal fats.
Try making some of these switches:
- When eating toast, try dipping it in olive oil and balsamic vinegar instead of adding butter
- Cook foods like vegetables, fish, eggs, and wraps with olive oil rather than butter or vegetable oil
- Make your own salad dressing, using olive oil instead of store-bought dressing
- Drizzle olive oil on pasta in place of butter or sugary sauces
- Use olive oil when baking muffins and cakes, instead of butter or vegetable oil
- Roast vegetables in olive oil
Do You Need To Drink Olive Oil?
Drinking olive oil is one of many trends you may have seen in the media that promises endless health benefits.
However, there is no research to prove it is any more effective when taken as a drink compared to when it is incorporated into a meal.
It may provide some benefits if you are struggling to get enough olive oil into your diet. But, as the above suggestions show, there are plenty of ideas on how to add it to increase your intake.
Potential Side Effects Of Consuming Olive Oil
While olive oil is extremely nutrient-dense, it is also calorically dense, with each tablespoon providing a whopping 119 calories (12). Consuming olive oil in addition to your current eating pattern may result in an excess amount of calories that can lead to weight gain.
Instead, what’s recommended is to eat more olive oil and eat less saturated fats such as fatty meats, butter, lard, and high-fat dairy products.
Other Mediterranean-Approved Foods
Enjoying olive oil and the Mediterranean diet can lead to many health benefits. The Mediterranean way of eating is a sustainable, healthy diet that can result in long-term health benefits for many. Whether you go all-in and take on this lifestyle entirely or make subtle changes, you’re sure to feel the difference!